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Science Is Not Boring

Science_center_iowaA friend of mine, Pete Jones, runs a popular and useful blog here in the metro entitled Des Moines Is Not Boring. He has done a lot for the community by highlighting overlooked restaurants, events, and attractions to help negate the perception that Des Moines, Iowa is boring. (It's really not boring, by the way; there's always SOMETHING going on.)

However, there's one unfortunate blight on an otherwise not-boring town. Last week, I took my girls to the Science Center of Iowa. We always get a season family pass to the Science Center, the Zoo, and Living History Farms. It's been a few months since I've been to the Science Center, and I hate to say it but I was grossly underwhelmed. Virtually nothing had changed since my last visit. Realistically, little has changed in the eight years it's been open. As a friend of mine put it: "They seem to care more about charging money for IMAX productions and hosting cocktail events than they do promoting science." Another parent recently wrote a blantantly honest assessment of their experience at the Science Center. It seems I'm not alone.

Science is about discovery. It's about not quite knowing what to expect. It's about curiosity. It's about exploration. What message is conveyed to children when they see the same old "attractions" sitting there visit after visit? In total we spent less than hour there. It's a shame. I've been to many children's museums and science museums throughout the country (on multiple occasions). Like science experiments, these other museums evolve. They change the variables. They keep the curiosity alive. It's how they maintain their credibility. By maintaining a stagnant status quo, our own Science Center undermines its own credibility as an institution promoting science.

In my last post, I referred to the Heath Brothers' book, Made to Stick, and we covered how your project scope needs to be simple and concrete. A couple of other attributes to memorable accomplishments are being UNEXPECTED and being CREDIBLE. Are you purposely upsetting people's expectations to get (and keep) their attention? And are you a trusted source of expertise? Your project is competing with every other email, meeting, project, Facebook post, Tweet, and interruption. As a project manager, it is imperitive that you keep your stakeholders from getting bored with you. It is critical they trust you to have the answers (or know where to get them).

One of my more memorable projects was (drum roll) a HIPAA compliance project (crickets... yawn). When it came time to create the training video, we did something unexpected: we created the entire video like an episode of COPS. We demonstrated our credibility by portraying the important messages to the employees. At the same time, we violated their paradigms of what a HIPAA training video should look like. Balancing credibility and unexpectedness, you keep your project valuable and engaging. It means you have people noticing you (for the right reasons). They're curious about you. They're interested in you.

And it doesn't take a lot of effort to do incredibly unexpected things to make your project unexpectedly credible. Find an excruciatingly long 2-hour meeting and figure out how to shave it down to 15 minutes (and still get the same result). You'll be a hero. Take a 10-page hyper-wordy status report and turn it into a 3-page PowerPoint that says the same thing. That will get executives' attention. Adding credible value in unexpected ways is simpler than you might think.

As for the Science Center of Iowa, I hope they can find their mojo again. My kids and I are looking forward to being curious, and engaged, and interested, and...

You Got My Scope All Sticky

This summer, I've made a point to catch up on reading (and re-reading) books I view as critical to enhancing and honing my skills as a project manager. I've talked before about how I like to read two or more books simultaneously and play the authors' thoughts off of each other like an imaginary debate/discussion. Another one of my literary consumption quirks is that I love to read books about 5-10 years after their release.

Let's face it: when a book is released, there's a lot of hype. As an author, I've learned firsthand how much work it takes to publicize a book. The more people who are talking about it, the better. But... how well does it stand up to time? In our constantly-evolving world of fickle attention-grabbers, is it still relevant a few years after release?

200203 Lauren Chocolate FaceI'm just starting into Chip and Dan Heath's book, Decisive, but before doing so, I opted to go back and reread Made to Stick. "Reread" may be too strong a term, as I'll admit I only scanned it at a high level when I bought a copy in 2008. This time, I really dug in, contemplated passages, took notes, and spent some time on it. Moreover, I thought about how it applied to my role as a project manager.

For those who haven't read it, the book is predicated on the acronym SUCCESs (the last 's' being irrelevant, but even they admit the acronym is contrived). According to the brothers Heath, for an idea to stick, it must be:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories (yes, we'll also forgive them for the lack of parallelism on this last bullet)

Still, in looking back on my career as a project manager and using it as a backdrop to the reading, I found the most successful projects I've managed started with scopes (i.e., what we're going to do) containing the elements above). Of these, the most critical have been simple and concrete. Can I as a project manager effectively convey the scope as a Twitter-worthy sound-bite (within 140 characters). I've always appreciated the Henry David Thoreau quote: "An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail." Instead of trying to do a dozen or so things half-way, pick two or three give them the focus they deserve.

If a project manager can help stakeholders at all levels TRULY UNDERSTAND what is happening in clear terms, s/he gets a lot further. I've often used Pepsi's informal mission statement from the early 1990's: Kill Coke. Very simple and concrete. The Heaths tell the story of Jeff Hawkins, project manager for the Palm Pilot. He carried a block of wood the size of his final product to all of his meetings in order to keep the team focused and to avoid feature creep (i.e., scope creep).

A sticky scope is a good thing, and put the effort into it up front. It will be a great investment to keep your project on track through planning and execution.

Following To the Gates of Help

Othello-iagoIn the grander scheme of office politics, it's fairly simple to note the overt office politicians. Recently, my wife dragged me to encouraged me to escort her to a live production of Shakespeare's Othello. From an audience member's perspective, especially one who knows the plot and characters at least on the surface, the villain Iago's actions and motives were pretty transparent. The guy was slick, and he almost pulled it off.

However, sometimes it is much harder to identify and diagnose underhanded political behavior. A while back in my career, I was recruited to a project by a couple of employees who said I'd be perfect for their organization. They didn't want (or need) the "standard" way of managing a project, as it had yielded failure in the past. The project sounded interesting, and their timing was perfect, so I relented to synchronicity and came on board. A few months into the contract, one of the two took an online project management course. Those who know me and have seen me in action know the paradox: as a college professor, I am generally the polar opposite from "text book" (in pretty much anything in life). I liken project management to music or cooking: to do it well, you learn the rules and ingrain them into your being. To go beyond, you separate science from art and figure out how to break the rules.

Hence, we set up the conflict. Within a couple of weeks of starting this course, this individual noticed I wasn't following all the rules that the online instructor was teaching all "good" project managers do. And this employee started a one-person mission to discredit me. But, in an organization that hadn't delivered anything significant on time or well, I was getting results and I was delivering them on-time. In working with the decision-makers, we had agreed to sacrifice some features and functions up front, and we determined the short-term organizational pain was worth a long-term organizational win. In other words, credibility was on my side, and this person started looking more foolish with every tattling complaint.

Here's the kicker, though: Whenever called on the carpet for this behavior, this individual would muster a look of perplexed hurt and innocently state "I was just concerned" or "I was only trying to help." And therein lies the rub of some covert snake politicians. If they can effectively mask their their true motives with a concerned "Ha! I like not that" (Iago's line which starts Othello down his path of destructive jealousy), then they can get away with a lot.

How do you combat a person like this? Here are a few tips from my experience:

  1. Perform well and accomplish. My project's results and performance discredited this person more than anything I could have said or done in my defense. I've often stated that the best revenge is success. On-time milestone delivery and honest communication of the issues undermined all complaints about process and methodology.
  2. Watch your back. This person rarely came to me, but rather targeted the project executives for complaining innuendo. I had others watching out for me and informing me what was happening. Having a spy or two acting on your behalf is far more valuable. Also, know who really has your back and who is using your back for target practice. Office politics often bring in allies to both sides of a conflict. In this case, my thorn-in-the-side had their own team. Othello fell because the one person he trusted to watch his back was Iago.
  3. Face to Face. Tandem with watching your back is watching the other person's behavior when they're in your presence. Until this person's motives and actions were brought into clear light, the M.O. was syrupy sweet interchanges to my face. I had been clued in early, as my first day on the job, they were all too willing to "take me into their confidence" and provide the gossip on others in the organization.
  4. Give them rope. This is a balancing act for you. If they are doing damage to the project with their actions, you may need to help hasten their demise for the good of the team. But if their self-destruction is imminent, just step back and givem them enough rope to hang themselves. (You might also assess whether the behavior is coachable. I attempted to talk with the person on a couple of occasions, but the die was already cast.)
  5. Document. I never needed to use it, but I had started documenting the behaviors and events as they were coming to my attention. I saved forwarded emails and tracked dates and those involved.

In the end, my project's Iago was defeated and left the organization. I completed the contract successfully and moved on to other endeavors. I've come to learn they used the same behaviors in prior jobs, and they still employ those same behaviors currently. (Some job markets are just too small, and people talk.) I'm guessing at some point early in their career, they were successful with the "I was just concerned" and/or "I was just trying to help" approaches. It's sad they couldn't learn from past mistakes and try something new and constructive.

Carpet Factum

Carpet tanLast fall, an unfortunate flush of the toilet at the worst possible time created an "indoor water feature" in our newly remodeled family room beneath the aforementioned toilet. This sent us on a three month ordeal to completely gut and remodel the offending bathroom, as well as restore the family room to its prior glory. Always the project manager, I assumed most of the responsibility for selecting fixtures, dealing with the insurance company, and communicating with contractors. For the most part, the project ran smoothly with the exception of the carpet.

When we remodeled our family room the year prior, my wife went through painstaking research to find the perfect carpet, balancing texture, color, and a zillion other attributes. I even dealt with the same carpet company during the current fiasco, providing them with an exact sample of the carpet in order to match it perfectly. So imagine our surprise when the carpet laid was not the same as the carpet we already had down. When we pointed this out to the flooring company, they attempted to pull a few tricks to weasel out of their mistake, but because we had samples from the prior carpet and the carpet they laid, the differences were undeniable. When we went in to reorder, the "realization suddenly dawned" on our salesperson that our prior order might actually be in their computer system and - lo and behold - it was. (Duh! I only told her multiple times we had ordered our carpet from them just 15 months prior.)

In projects, we often ignore the "current state" of things because the project solution represents something new, something exciting, something different. The "as is" represents the old and stale status quo, so why bother with it? Our carpet salesperson didn't bother to consider what we had; she wanted to focus on what we would be getting. This mindset can be lethal for a project manager, as there are many valuable aspects to investing in understanding where you are before you define where you're going:

  1. Pain motivates. Plain and simple. If people understand the pain associated with the current state, they will have greater appreciation for the new solution. The greatest resistance I've encountered on projects is from those who do not associate the status quo with organizational pain. Doing this well will generate appreciation rather than resentment from your stakeholders.
  2. It's not all bad. Occasionally, things are being done well currently. In our rush to a new project solution, we are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Such was my experience on a recent software conversion project. I came in at a point where the commitment to the new solution was made, and my job was to execute. The former brass had not bothered doing a solid stakeholder analysis and didn't realize there were many desired features in the old system which wouldn't be in the new system. Through workarounds, communication, and change management, we were able to resolve this, but a thorough current state would have revealed features worth keeping in a new solution.
  3. A numbers game. As the old quality adage goes, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." Helping a daughter through algebra, it's obvious that to measure a distance, one must have a starting point. Not knowing your beginning makes it really hard to figure out if you've arrived at your destination.

Virtually any process improvement model will prompt you to create a current state document. While it may seem like a waste of time up front, it's actually a sound investment to prevent wasting time at the back end.

As for our carpet, we eventually got everything figured out, and another installation later, we had our family room back to its former glory. I just wish our salesperson had known the importance and value of current state analysis before she ordered the wrong carpet. Oh well. Live and learn.

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